By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

LinkedIn self-censoring "sensitive" posts about China

U.S.-China conversation.  Shutterstock image.

Rob Schmitz is a Shanghai-based U.S. journalist with a prior career as a Peace Corps volunteer in China; the Columbia Journalism School grad is now a freelancer for various U.S. media outlets. I had never heard of him before I saw somebody re-tweet on Twitter something he had written about problems he had had with posts he had put up on his LinkedIn account. He told about what had happened after he posted a story about the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square suppression (in order that potential employers could get samples of his writing).

However, he shortly thereafter received an email from LinkedIn saying that his post contained "content that is prohibited in China," and that "as a result the content will not be seen by LinkedIn members located in China." Furthermore, LinkedIn informed that Schmitz's post, because it originated in China, would not be sent to his followers outside the country either.

This issue of Western media self-censorship in China first got raised in March when the CEO of Bloomberg LP -- which gets almost all its profits from sales of financial terminals and related services, and which sells a lot of these in China -- made a public speech that came very close to apologizing for stories that its Bloomberg News division had written about the huge wealth of some top Chinese leaders.

The New York Times reported the CEO stating "that the company should have reconsidered articles that deviated from its core of coverage of business news, because they jeopardized the huge sales potential for its products in the Chinese market." Shortly thereafter, a number of Bloomberg journalists covering China, including Mike Forsythe (who had written the main story that had offended the Chinese), left the company. Forsythe was (magnificently) hired by the Times, whose website in China has been blocked ever since it published the first of these stories about Chinese leaders' wealth almost two years ago.

After the Bloomberg News fiasco, another incident has occurred involving the German official radio station Deutsche Welle, which has a popular Chinese-language service beamed to China. They had published a blog by a China-based German "media consultant" presenting a view of Tiananmen Square that was sympathetic to the Chinese government, though they did then publish a reply by an exile Chinese journalist in Germany. Allegedly, staff at the Chinese-language service were told about the Chinese ambassador protesting against Deutsche Welle's coverage and asked to "tone down" their reporting. A journalist who leaked her version of the meeting was then fired.

These examples involve media freedom. But there have also been highly distasteful incidents where Chinese television has run campaigns involving minor alleged consumer abuses by, for example, Apple Computer, where the firms have been pressured into making humiliating public apologies that are reminiscent of Stalin's show trials in the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

I am by no means somebody who begrudges China her rise. The country was long humiliated by more-powerful countries despite her ancient, beautiful civilization. Only a really mean person can be anything but overjoyed that hundreds of millions of Chinese have emerged from poverty since their leaders changed policies in 1978.

China has earned an important status in the world. But if that status is going to be used to bully people into silence and self-degradation, that is not the kind of rise that those outside of China are going to welcome. And Western companies that so worship their China sales that they participate in these humiliating spectacles will not make friends among their customers in the West.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Sep 02, 2014 at 8:33 AM


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